“When communist artisans gather together, it is first doctrine, propaganda, etc.., which is their goal. But at the same time they acquire thereby a new need, the need for sociation, and what seems to be the way became the goal. One can observe the most brilliant results of this practical movement when we see the French socialist workers together. Smoking, drinking, eating, etc.., no longer there as pretexts for meeting or joining. The assembly, the association, the conversation, which are also the aims of sociation are enough, the brotherhood of man is not for them an empty phrase, but a truth, and the nobility of man shines in these figures hardened by work ” (1)
When Karl Marx wrote at age 26, the 1844 Manuscripts, one of his most important texts, he lived in Paris and attended the associations of workers where they spoke [of] socialism. He has always attributed great importance to this first meeting with men who intended to practically overthrow the bourgeois order. In the paragraph quoted here (which is inside a section devoted to the degeneration of needs in capitalist society), he made a tribute – not only to their doctrines (which he would soon begin to savagely criticize), but also to their spirit of brotherhood. In their daily lives, in their simplest acts, they were already living in a different way from the society that they intended to fight.
Various studies have confirmed the extraordinary richness of the milieu designated as “proto-socialist”, especially in the time of Louis-Philippe. Rather than “workers” in the modern sense, they were essentially trained craftsmen with a highly developed sense of independence that came to them as a result the memory of their former conditions now threatened by the progress of modern industry. Marx subsequently distanced himself from what he termed “utopian socialists,” and theorists like P.-J. Proudhon, who remained close to the state of mind of the artisan workers. Marx then pointed out that almost all societies passed through the throes of capitalism before reaching communism. But at the end of his life he had to admit (in his famous letter to Vera Zasulich) that there were already communities practicing collective ownership of the means of production and which could form the basis of a future communism: It’s a matter of agrarian communities like the traditional Russian (Mir).
Apart from the question of the importance of pre-modern societies for going beyond capitalism, what appears here is the possibility that the opposition to bourgeois capitalist society is instantiated by human beings profoundly different from that society, its modes of life and its values. Beings who, even if they are exploited and oppressed by society, already practice among themselves, elements of life they want to achieve in the future by a collective struggle. Many revolutionary movements in the peripheries, (2) also a good part of the anarchist movement, have been born of this situation of exteriority in relation to capitalism. It was then seen as an invading power from outside. The anarchist movement in Spain which found its climax in the 1936 revolution drew its strength from its roots in the everyday culture of the popular classes largely marked by pre-capitalist traditions. Contempt for wealth once basic needs were met, and aversion to work, especially to industrial work, was the foundation of this mentalité (3). It was often rather a refusal to enter into capitalist society rather than from an effort to leave it or to improve it. More than a century before, the Luddite riots in England had the same goal: not to become workers. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners in England verified with despair that to give work to a Highlander — a resident of the savage wilds of Scotland — in a factory was like “harnessing a deer to the plow.”
Even today, the spread of the lifestyle of capitalist production often encounters strong resistance in areas and environments that are still strangers to it. These resistances should not be idealized, because sometimes they defend strong patriarchal and hierarchical orders based on the absolute primacy of the community over the individual. But they demonstrate that capitalism can find oppositions which are not immanent, that is that did not arise from capital’s own terrain. The latter was the case with the main currents of the labor movement. The Social Democrats were limited, very quickly, and explicitly, to only demanding a fairer distribution of the fruits of capitalist production. The Leninists said they would completely overturn this mode of production. But to get there, they said, we first must go through capitalism, modernize the country, learn from the enemy. As we know, Lenin saw in the German postal system a model for the construction of socialism. Consequently, he advocated the importation of Fordism and Taylorism – the “scientific management” of work – into the Soviet Union. In his notes on “Americanism and Fordism”, Antonio Gramsci, whom we often see as one of the most important sources for the renewal of a critical social alternative to state socialism, also was equally enthusiastic about Fordism and the assembly line – not only because of the increased production they made possible, but also for their beneficial effects on the moral life of the workers. Labor discipline, said Gramsci, would make them lose their vices like sex outside of marriage and laziness!
The radicalism in the methods used should not make us forget that the Leninists in all their variations, as well as leftists, Council Communists … and also the majority of anarchists cannot be situated outside of the framework of a society based on value and commodities, money and abstract labor. To the contrary, the work ethic was often brought to its climax by them. The left denounced the exploitation of labor and the conditions under which it took place. But it completely set aside the foundations of Marx’s theory: it is not the nature of human life, but the characteristic of capitalism alone, that social activity counts only, regardless of its content, as the simple expenditure of undifferentiated time — what Marx calls “abstract labor” — that this time constitutes a ghostly “value” and that it represents itself finally in money. Just as the “science” of bourgeois economics, the left in all its modes considered value and abstract labor, commodities and money, as eternal factors of social life – it was thus, for the left, only a matter of ensuring a “fairer” distribution of that value.
Similarly, industrial production and productivism were highly approved of by all the whole of the left 3 (with the only exceptions being a part of the anarchist movement, some artists, like the Surrealists, and thinkers such as William Morris). The identification of happiness with commodity consumption was little criticized by the left before the 1960s, and has remained marginal even after that. The gradual occupation of all areas of life by commodities and labor included the spread of human attitudes such as efficiency, speed, discipline, self-sacrifice into the domain of labor and the narcissistic conception its own role in life. The left often tirelessly welcomed all “modernization.” Briefly, anti-capitalist opposition of the twentieth century largely “alter-capitalist movements”: opposition immanent to capitalism and its core structures which fought over how best to manage the labor of society. The difference between “radicals” and “moderates” on the left concerned, then, the form of intervention rather than its content. Worker’s self-management of the factory, just as polluting and just as dependent on success in the market place, was its hallmark.
During the past several decades, environmentalism and feminism, “alternative” lifestyles, and more recently, movements like « no growth» have called into question the model of life propagated by industrial capitalism. But we know that the “revenge” of “artistic critique” over “social critique” 4 has also had, perverse effects: it assists in the restructuring of capitalism, by refocusing its critique so as to achieve a more flexible and individualized style of management, and remaining — albeit unintentionally, within a perspective immanent to capitalism. But it is especially in the worship of the work-fetish that capitalism and its alleged opponents demonstrate their real membership in the same universe. Save for a few, and often incoherent exceptions, almost no one can imagine a society that is no longer based on the need to sell his labor-power to live – even if you can not find buyers anywhere. Technologies have replaced human labor to such a degree, that — in all sectors and worldwide — work has lost its role as the primary productive force. But the goal of capitalist production is not concrete wealth, but the accumulation of value – which is created through the utilization of labor-power and, which with surplus labor (unpaid labor) generates surplus-value. And it is not any kind of labor that creates value, but only labor that reproduces the capital invested in it by the standards of global productivity. That is why even millions of new workers in China do not permit an anemic capitalist accumulation to revive. Profits obtained even by some economic actors, especially in the field of finance, no way shows that capitalism as a whole is in good health.
To put it very briefly, the main problem today is not only the exploitation of labor (even if it exists, and more than before), but the fact that increasingly large strata of the population have been made “superfluous” by a production which dispenses with human labor. It is ridiculous to imagine providing “work” for all those made “superfluous”. Rather, it is necessary to begin to imagine a society that does not use its productive potential to satisfy the quest for a ghostly and fetishized “commodity value”, but which uses this potential to meet human needs.
The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of its traditional adversaries. With the gradual end of labor, and therefore of value and of money “value” that results, all the oppositions that refer to or want to make better use of those categories lose their relevance. It is the same for those who want to conquer state power to transform it into a lever for
emancipatory transformation. 4
To extricate humankind from capitalism, you must first be separated from all its bases, even those that are in one’s head. This is harder than you might think, even if aware of the urgency of this task seems more prevalent today than fifteen years ago. All the members of modern societies have grown up and lived in conditions where almost every element of life assumes a commodity form, and where we get what we want through the money earned by labor (one’s own or that of others, labor present or past). The idea of having a great deal of money is so obviously desirable, just like seeing the government make better use of “its” funds. However, having to face a generalized devaluation of money and of work can make one literally dizzy and very scared. However, it is also on the basis of the recognition of the new situation created by the crisis that we can begin to imagine a post-capitalist society that does not reduce itself to being just another version of the one we already know.
1 Karl Marx, 1844 Manuscripts (Economics and Philosophy), tr. E. Bottigelli, Social Publishing, Paris, 1972, p. 107 & 108, the chapter on “Understanding human needs in the regime of private property and under socialism.” Translation modified (in the first sentence quoted, Marx speaks of artisans (Handwerker), not workers, as translated by Bottigelli, and only then begins to use the French word “worker”).
2 I would refer to my article “The Rise and limits of revolutionary romanticism” (about several works of M. Lowy and R. Sayre) Book Review (Paris) No. 2, November 2011.
3 See “De ‘La lucha por Barcelona, at El elogio del trabajo’. The anti-capitalist anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists Spanish thirties “in the economy Exit No. 4, 2012, 4 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Gallimard (“Essays”), Paris, 1999.